The Franciscan papacy at five years

The Franciscan papacy at five years

Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam

It is hard to believe that five years have passed since Pope Francis stepped out onto the loggia at St. Peter’s for the first time, looked out on the vast crowds in St. Peter’s square, waved simply with his right hand, and spoke his first public words: “Buona sera.”

Today, I would like to offer a brief reflection on Pope Francis and on the continuity between his and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI.

I have written about some of this before, how in the days and weeks following his election, he always seemed to deliver a new surprise or challenge the status quo: whether it was to hop back on the minibus with the cardinals following his election; to personally call a news kiosk to cancel his newspaper subscription in Buenos Aires; or to personally inspect the cars in the Vatican parking lot – keeping an eye out for cars that seemed too extravagant or luxurious.

Some of his earliest critics knocked Francis for these public displays, but for most of us I think it was refreshing to see a high-ranking member of the clergy hold himself above the regular people who must cancel our own subscriptions, can’t afford luxury vehicles, and have to provide for our own transportation. Meanwhile, these actions were labeled “false humility” by the early critics, who began to look upon everything he did with contempt. Many critics went out of their way to demonstrate that Pope Benedict also packed his own bags and was kind and humble with people – it was as if by praising Francis, we were somehow accusing Pope Benedict. And no doubt, some were.

But for many of us who read the theology of Joseph Ratzinger and followed Pope Benedict XVI’s papacy closely, we noticed something very “Ratzingerian” about Pope Francis and his public witness. It was as if Francis was putting Ratzinger’s theology of encounter into action. Benedict, for all of his intellectual gifts, was an introvert. Accepting the role of pope and being thrust into the public eye was a trial for him and he weathered it admirably. He was never the showman his predecessor was, and was never the energetic and joy-filled extrovert that Francis is. His contributions to the Magisterium, however, were very significant, and in many ways revolutionary.

There are some common theological threads between Benedict and Francis. Both are strongly influenced by Romano Guardini and his views of modernity, for example. Themes such as mercy, repentance, and encounter with Christ appear repeatedly in the words and writings of both popes.

And Benedict has noted the continuity between the two of them, while noting their difference in style. In the 2016 interview book Last Testament, Benedict said,

“[O]ne can of course misinterpret in places, with the intention of saying that everything has been turned on its head now. If one isolates things, takes them out of context, one can construct opposites, but not if one looks at the whole. There may be a different emphasis, of course, but no opposition…. There is a new freshness in the Church, a new joyfulness, a new charisma which speaks to people, and that is certainly something beautiful.”

Yesterday, Pope Benedict explicitly asserted the theological continuity between the two papacies in even more uncertain terms. He sent a letter to Msgr. Dario Vigano, of the Secretariat for Communication, in appreciation for a new book series, The Theology of Pope Francis.
Benedict writes,

“It contradicts the foolish prejudice of those who see Pope Francis as someone who lacks a particular theological and philosophical formation, while I would have been considered solely a theorist of theology with little understanding of the concrete lives of today’s Christian.”

He goes on to say,

“These small volumes reasonably demonstrate that Pope Francis is a man with profound philosophical and theological formation and are helpful to see the interior continuity between the two pontificates, even with all the differences in style and temperament.” (Emphasis added.)

It should go without saying that many of us who are strong supporters have great affinity for both Pope Benedict and Pope Francis. This is not about favoring one pope over the other, but in appreciating both men for their gifts and contributions to the Church. It is with much gratitude that we receive this message from Pope Emeritus Benedict. Perhaps this will encourage some of Pope Francis’s detractors to seek to understand more fully the faith and message that unifies them and the Church.

Happy Anniversary to Pope Francis, may God give you many years!

UPDATE: The full text of the letter has been made available.

Rev, Mons. Dario Edoardo Viganò
Prefect, Secretariat for Communication
Vatican City

February 7, 2018

Rev. Monsignor;

Thank you for your kind letter of 12 January and the attached gift of the eleven small volumes edited by Roberto Repole.

I applaud this initiative that wants to oppose and react to the foolish prejudice in which Pope Francis is just a practical man without particular theological or philosophical formation, while I have been only a theorist of theology with little understanding of the concrete life of a Christian today.

The small volumes show, rightly, that Pope Francis is a man of profound philosophical and theological formation, and they therefore help to see the inner continuity between the two pontificates, despite all the differences of style and temperament.

However, I don’t feel like writing a short and dense theological passage on them because throughout my life it has always been clear that I would write and express myself only on books I had read really well. Unfortunately, if only for physical reasons, I am unable to read the eleven volumes in the near future, especially as other commitments await me that I have already made.

I am sure you will understand and cordially greet you.

Benedict XVI

In the final full paragraph, Benedict declines to write a dense theological passage because he had not fully read the 11 volumes (written by 11 theologians). The inclusion of this final paragraph dispels any conspiracy theories that he wasn’t the author of the letter; why would a propagandist write a such a comprehensive explanation for why he was declining the request.

More importantly, reading the full letter in context demonstrates the great respect Benedict has for Francis’s theological formation, as well as his belief of an inner continuity between the two papacies, despite the external differences in approach and personality.

Naturally, this isn’t going to appease all of his critics. The link to Edward Pentin’s story above shows that Francis’s critics aren’t going to accept this at face value. But for most Catholics who value the continuity between the popes, this will reassure them all the more that Francis and Benedict are in total continuity on the essentials.


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